The little red school house, famous in the lore of the early days of the republic, is long gone, but the memory of it is a nostalgic reminder of how the education of children was once the responsibility of the town. As public education has grown into extensive public school systems in towns big and small, the schoolhouse is no longer the source of civic pride.
Restoring the importance of the public schools in towns big and small has become a cliche of our politics. Everyone knows that schools are failing large numbers of children. Parents quail, politicians rail, teachers’ unions squeal, and nothing much changes from election to election. There’s a growing appetite for shaking things up.
The concern is not new. A loud alarm was sounded in 1983 with a report titled “A Nation at Risk,” and Ronald Reagan held it up at a press conference, decrying the substandard performances of school children across America. “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today,” the report concluded, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”
President Reagan wanted to get rid of the Department of Education and return education to local control, but he couldn’t come close to doing that. So 33 years later we’ve continued “unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”